The political instability that has blighted Afghanistan in recent decades was sparked in July 1973, when a coup d’état swept from power Zahir Shah, the last King of Afghanistan. Daoud Khan, the king’s cousin who staged the plot, established himself as the first President of Afghanistan – ruling over the new republic until he, in turn, was overthrown during the Saur Revolution of April 1978.
During his 40-year reign, Zahir Shah had managed to maintain neutrality in a war-torn world, establishing friendly relations with East and West during the first three decades of the Cold War. But as competing political factions tore the country apart, Afghanistan’s strategic location between Soviet and US spheres of influence made the country increasingly vulnerable. Following the establishment of a pro-Soviet government in the late 1970s, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan began to covertly train and arm Afghanistan’s Islamist rebels. Today, the world is all too aware of the catastrophic results of that fateful decision. Fearing the collapse of the pro-Soviet government, under attack from the mujahideen insurgents, the USSR invaded Afghanistan at the end of 1979, starting a brutal 10-year Cold War proxy war.
The ongoing turmoil has decimated many aspects of Afghan culture, including its once thriving handmade carpet industry. Prior to the Soviet invasion, this centuries-old artistic tradition supported a fifth of the population. With their livelihoods under threat, Afghanistan’s weavers began to incorporate strange symbols into their intricate geometric designs. In place of flowers and birds, there appeared guns and grenades, missiles, tanks, battleships and helicopters. Likened to the Bayeux Tapestry and as a form of modern history painting, these intriguing and disquieting objects have become known as ‘war rugs’.
The inspiration behind the war rugs and their exact origins remain a mystery. Some have linked this phenomenon to a series of map textiles on the theme of the Six-Day War, commissioned from Afghan weavers in 1971 by the Italian conceptual artist, Alighieri Boetti. The creation of war rugs from the early 1980s has alternatively been defended as a cathartic response, expressing anger and defiance at the Soviet invasion; while some have viewed the carpets from the outset as tourist items, cynically produced to sell to the invaders. Indeed, priced between several hundred to thousands of US dollars, depending on quality and complexity, the war rugs are typically too expensive for the domestic market. As a result, the designs of the rugs have become increasingly commercial over the decades, developing from ‘hidden’ references to the apparatus of war, to explicit military images alongside English-language text.
The designs have also changed in response to the shifting history of conflict in Afghanistan. As Cold War moved to War on Terror, depictions of Soviet Kalashnikov assault rifles gave way to images of American drones and F-16 fighter jets. After the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, carpet designers appeared to lift imagery from propaganda leaflets airdropped over the country by the Americans. Scenes of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, offered as justification for the invasion, have often been weaved in refugee camps and sold back to Westerners. Indeed, this subject matter has proved particularly popular with overseas buyers and foreign aid workers.
Made from knotted wool and vegetable dye, the war rugs typically take between six and nine months to produce. Most are made by rural or displaced women, who risk damaged eyesight and back pain for little compensation. Yet for carpet dealers, the war rugs have becoming a small but vital part of an industry that still faces huge challenges.